Andy Smith

31 August 2012 – Most people think of Building Information Modelling or BIM as the “wow” factor in grand developments. 1 Bligh Street in Sydney famously imposed a BIM on the project for all who worked there, including builders Grocon.

But according to one of the leading purveyors of BIM, Bentley Systems, the truth is that the potential of this software system is very little understood in the broader development industry.

Andy Smith, the company’s US based guru who travels the world explaining this powerful software to potential customers, says people sometimes think they can “get a BIM”.

Sadly, there’s no such thing. First, you need to know what BIM “language” you want to speak, he says.

In a half-day seminar in mid-August for construction chiefs and asset managers, Bentley drew back the curtains a little on an astounding capacity to map, quantify, visually demonstrate, chop and dice a massive amount of data on any particular development.

BIM, it seems, can turn a visual design of a complex development into an Excel spreadsheet that can quantify all the steel you will need in your building; it can work out costs and specify its production. It can insert a video to simulate the path of a new train line so you can see exactly where a potential risky interference might emerge from the existing landscape.

It can give you a kind of x-ray view into a building so you can see where all the services are located and what is the most efficient way to carry out a retrofit.

You know how they find out where the services are at most airports, Smith asked the audience? They dig until they find them.

BIM eliminates that kind of waste, he said.

But it’s also complex and challenging. The biggest difficulty is not to design the software – there seems to be plenty of super-brains available for that – but in the rather trickier and more delicate task of enabling ease of use of this powerful beast by the people who want to design, build and later manage the project.

Because as Smith made clear, the question is not do you want a “BIM”? But what BIM language do you need to speak? Is it design BIM, construction BIM or facility management BIM?

Each is different and in general these different BIMs don’t need to speak to each other, at least with a full vocabulary. It’s unlikely, for instance, that a facility manager will ever need to have access to intricate details of the architect’s drawings.

But they will need to know where the airconditioning ducts are located in case the owners want to knock a wall out some time in the future.

Fergus Dunn, left, Paul King

In conversations with Bentley’s Fergus Dunn, Paul King and Smith prior to the forum, it was already becoming clear that there was a major iceberg floating beneath the polite and tidy cap of this software.

What’s still to be fully appreciated perhaps is the potential of BIM to change the way the construction and development industry does its business.

Embedded in the development process is the existence of huge risk. There’s the scale of potential losses when things go wrong, or when there are necessary changes. Who bears the cost? The architect? The builder? The developer? It’s led to an industry plagued by adversarial relationships. And it’s spawned another industry in construction contracts and litigation.

All of this leads to bigger costs.

But imagine if the contracts for development morphed into a single contract? Where the designer and the builder were paid from the same invoice? Were on the same page? Agreed to share information in real time?

Suddenly, instead of jealously guarding information, there is collaboration and the promise of mutual benefit. And the promise of a built environment that can be more efficient to build, design, manage, cheaper and easier to retrofit, and overall more sustainable.

“Technology allows people to think through the problem better,” Andy Smith says.

“Computing in general has allowed us to do more iterations of analysis (and) more iterative design analysis means thinking about the problems differently.”